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How MOA Designs Prototype Schools

By Jack Mousseau


By Jessica Blanford


Pueblo high schools themes

It should come as no surprise that school clients consider the prototype approach when developing multiple facilities for the same school program. Prototype designs offer a host of benefits to districts: saving time and money, creating efficiencies across organizations, and offering educational equity across a district.

But while the prototype approach has these benefits, it is not without its challenges. The approach, of course, is not as simple as dropping a copy of an existing facility on a new site. The MOA Educational Studio Team has tackled many prototype projects—including Prototype Design Standards for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and four ongoing prototype projects for Pueblo School District 60—and understands how a successful prototype design process for a school project is a complex variation on the typical design process. This variation involves a different frame of reference and introduces a new set of design challenges.

But before we explore these challenges—as well as the varied benefits—offered by a prototype design approach, we will introduce you to how MOA breaks down prototype school design into three different categories.

Types of Prototypes

At MOA, when we talk about prototypes, we are referring to a cluster of related design concepts. We break down the concept of a prototype—a facility design that can be repurposed for use on another site—into three types of prototypes.

True Prototypes

A true prototype is what it sounds like: you take the design for an existing school facility and place it on another site, making only slight adjustments to account for grade changes, foundations, etc. (You might also “mirror” a true prototype—more on that later.)

Common Core Prototypes

A common core prototype is also what it sounds like: the school facility has a common core that establishes adjacencies and relationships between critical program components—such as the auditorium, gymnasium, cafeteria, and entry—while allowing for other more flexible components, such as classroom wings, to connect with this common core in a variety of ways.

Kit of Parts Prototypes

A kit-of-parts prototype describes a school facility where the various components—classroom wings, cafeterias, auditoriums, gymnasiums, administration—are designed individually for potential rearrangement. The kit-of-parts prototype may include technical standards for design and construction, which guide the configuration and design of each school.

The prototype approach, encompassing each of these three options, has its advantages and disadvantages, some of them obvious and others less so. Below, we explore some of those “pros” and “cons” our team considers when it comes to exploring the option of a prototype design with our PK-12 clients.

Speeding up the Process

Because working with a prototype design reduces the overall required design efforts, project teams can accelerate the delivery of construction documents, with significant reductions in the design portion of a project schedule. MOA has developed a PK-8 prototype design for Denver Public Schools, which our team implemented in 2016 for a new school in the Far Northeast neighborhood of the city.

By working off a prototype, our team was able to shave months off the typical schedule for a new PK-8 facility. In partnership with the CM/GC Adolfson & Peterson Construction, our team was able to deliver the design and construction of the facility in 15 months, getting students out of portables and into the building six months earlier than would have otherwise been possible.

The prototype design process can also result in considerable time savings for district personnel compared to the typical number of hours spent in the design process. This has proven especially beneficial as school districts face a host of challenges, such as shrinking budgets and learning in the COVID era.

There are other scheduling benefits of prototype design that appear in construction. During the construction of a prototype design, we have the benefit of hindsight. Recalling the previous implementation of a prototype, the design team can anticipate and prepare for the various snags and pitfalls, such as RFIs, submittals, and code compliance.

Saving on Costs

Cost and budget play a critical role in the success of school facility projects. For school districts, these capital projects are a tremendous investment of taxpayer dollars. MOA—along with our contractor partners—know that we have responsibility to taxpayers to deliver on this public investment with the best buildings possible.

Prototype design offers a strategy to reduce capital expenditures on new projects while still delivering a high-quality facility. Those savings are typically found through cost savings in design fees. Because much of the project documentation already exists, the design team’s responsibility consists of adapting existing drawings as needed to suit the new site and address school-specific programmatic or planning requirements.

In our experience, clients can save anywhere from 25-40% on design fees when working with a prototype design. The 15% swing in cost savings is due to the design efforts that vary from site to site, such as civil engineering, and the type of prototype approach taken.

In the unusual case that a District has the capital available for the simultaneous design and construction of the same facility type, the prototype approach can lead to even greater cost savings. Concurrent construction projects create efficiencies that extend beyond design and can result in significant savings in materials and labor costs. MOA is working with Pueblo School District 60 on two such projects—a prototype high school and prototype elementary school, which will both be constructed concurrently.

Creating Equity across a District

Another benefit of prototype design is the creation of equity across a school district. To the detriment of the larger school district, schools often reflect the socioeconomic status of their neighborhoods: better schools in affluent neighborhoods, worse schools in disadvantaged ones. There are also less obvious sources of inequity when it comes to the design of schools. Some new schools, for example, will have an engaged Design Advisory Group, with strong advocates for key program elements or design components—such as multi-purpose spaces that are open to the larger community after-hours.

Because prototype designs serve the larger needs of students across an entire district, their implementation “levels the playing field” for students to achieve success and refuses to replicate inequities that may exist between different neighborhoods within their respective learning environments. For truly unique educational needs of a particular school, minor modifications can easily be incorporated into a prototype design.

Creating Consensus across a District

The other side of this, of course, is that the development of a prototype requires creating consensus across a group of stakeholders.

A successful design process for a new school acknowledges and addresses an array of requirements, needs, hopes, and concerns. This challenge is supercharged when developing a prototype design, with an expanded group of stakeholders that typically involves district administrative leadership. It is critical that there is buy-in to the value of the prototype process from the top on down. Without this buy-in, site-specific or program-specific modifications demanded by stakeholders can dilute the efficiency of the prototype approach, erasing the savings in time and money.

Our firm’s work with Pueblo School District 60 has foregrounded the importance of creating consensus. Our user group meetings for the high school prototype project bring together district leaders and users from both Centennial High School and East High School, which allows us to discuss key programs from a district perspective rather than focus on a single high school. We can then make consensus decisions on key project elements, such as the type of sound system in the schools’ auditoriums.

Shaping a Prototype to the Site

This emphasis on creating equity across a District through prototype design presents one obvious challenge: not every site is the same.

Every site is subject to a different set of “site forces.” In determining the ideal site plan for a school, architects seek to account for these forces, which include grade changes, traffic patterns, utility locations, and views.

Working with a true prototype complicates this process. Sometimes the best location for a parent drop-off at one school site is impossible to replicate on another. The Front Range view that one school has from its cafeteria? Place that prototype design on another site and the cafeteria will have a view of a neighbor’s backyard. Locker rooms adjacent to play fields on one site butt up against the street on another. You get the idea.

One way to address these conflicts between a true prototype and a site is “mirroring” the design. Where a true prototype might not work with a site, the same prototype, when mirrored, may solve that pesky parent drop-off issue.

For a site negotiating a significant grade change, another option is shifting the floor plan. The Pueblo high schools offer an example of this, with one high school being a two-story configuration, while the prototype required an additional floor change due to site topography. With the addition of stairs and elevator to accommodate the floor change, the prototype layout remained largely the same.

Likewise, the two other prototype design approaches—the common core and kit of parts prototypes—offer additional methods for working around potential site conflicts and constraints, flipping the location of a classroom wing, for instance.

Shaping a Prototype to the School

Just as the site complicates the implementation of a prototype design, if the prototype is a replacement facility for an existing school, the existing school’s program, history, and culture can present challenges to the design process.

Program Differences

Variations in school program present a clear challenge to the use of a prototype design. This is especially true for high schools, which often have program-specific spaces—such as Career & Technical Education classrooms and certain athletic facilities—that vary from school to school. The prototype design must account for these program differences through flexible design, offering a base design that can easily be adapted (either during design or in post-occupancy) for a range of programs and uses.

The high school prototype our team developed for Pueblo School District 60 is a true prototype that negotiates several program differences between the District’s Centennial High School and East High School. For example, the same program space that is home to a weld shop in one school serves a nursing education suite in the other. The key is flexibility. Prototype schools must embrace flexibility to accommodate unique or changing needs.

Considering a School’s Culture

Another challenge with prototype design is designing schools that have their own identities—themes, colors, materials, and signage.

Colors and materials offer an easy way to differentiate one instance of a prototype school from another. Incorporating flexible specifications, a prototype design can offer a dizzying array of variation in exterior and interior appearances.

MOA’s prototype elementary school for Littleton Public Schools leverages “theme” to generate a substantially different experience between the two schools. In MOA’s design of the Dr. Justina Ford Elementary School, the Design Advisory Group opted for an emphasis on biophilic elements for the interior design. That resulted in the extensive use of wood and wood-look products, nature-inspired colors and textures, and custom casework “nooks” shaped as rocks and trees. The next elementary school will adhere to a different theme, thanks to the flexibility of the base prototype design.

Creating a Specific Experience

Looking beyond a theme, which focuses largely on interior design, another way to shape a different experience between schools is through “swappable” elements.

“Swappability,” where different design elements can be exchanged as needed, extends from the common core and kit of parts prototype approaches. In combination with theme, these swappable elements, such as entry canopies, can create very different experiences across two facilities that may otherwise be essentially the same building.